FarmPolicy

January 19, 2020

Animal Agriculture; Climate Change Issues; and Biofuels

Animal Agriculture

Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza reported yesterday that, “[M]ore and more Americans — many of them living far from barns and pastures — are at risk from the widespread practice of feeding livestock antibiotics. These animals grow faster, but they can also develop drug-resistant infections that are passed on to people. The issue is now gaining attention because of interest from a new White House administration and a flurry of new research tying antibiotic use in animals to drug resistance in people.

“Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it’s 50 percent.”

The AP article stated that, “The rise in the use of antibiotics is part of a growing problem of soaring drug resistance worldwide, The Associated Press found in a six-month look at the issue. As a result, killer diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and staph are resurging in new and more deadly forms.

In response, the pressure against the use of antibiotics in agriculture is rising. The World Health Organization concluded this year that surging antibiotic resistance is one of the leading threats to human health, and the White House last month said the problem is ‘urgent.’”

Yesterday’s article noted that, “More than 20 percent of all human cases of a deadly drug-resistant staph infection in the Netherlands could be traced to an animal strain, according to a study published online in a CDC journal. Federal food safety studies routinely find drug resistant bacteria in beef, chicken and pork sold in supermarkets, and 20 percent of people who get salmonella have a drug resistant strain, according to the CDC.

“Here’s how it happens: In the early ’90s, farmers in several countries, including the U.S., started feeding animals fluoroquinolones, a family of antibiotics that includes drugs such as ciprofloxacin. In the following years, the once powerful antibiotic Cipro stopped working 80 percent of the time on some of the deadliest human infections it used to wipe out. Twelve years later, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study linking people infected with a Cipro-resistant bacteria to pork they had eaten.”

The AP writers pointed out that, “Antibiotics are a crucial part of [farmer and veterinarian Craig Rowles’] business, speeding growth and warding off disease.

“‘Now the public doesn’t see that,’ he said. ‘They’re only concerned about resistance, and they don’t care about economics because, ‘As long as I can buy a pork chop for a buck 69 a pound, I really don’t care.’ But we live in a world where you have to consider economics in the decision-making process of what we do.’

“Rowles gives his pigs virginiamycin, which has been used in livestock for decades and is not absorbed by the gut. He withdraws the drug three weeks before his hogs are sent for slaughter. He also monitors his herd for signs of drug resistance to ensure they are getting the most effective doses.

“‘The one thing that the American public wants to know is: Is the product that I’m getting, is it safe to eat?’ said Rowles, whose home freezer is full of his pork. ‘I’m telling you that the product that we produce today is the safest, most wholesome product that you could possibly get.’”

With respect to policy related issues, the AP article indicated that, “Some U.S. lawmakers are fighting for a new law that would ban farmers like Rowles from feeding antibiotics to their animals unless they are sick.

“‘If you mixed an antibiotic in your child’s cereal, people would think you’re crazy,’ said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y. [FarmPolicy.com Note: See related news items on this issue from Congresswoman Slaughter here (July 2009), here (September 2009), here (October 2009), and here (October 2009). A related release from the House Rules Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Slaughter, is available here (July 2009)].

Renewed pressure is on from Capitol Hill from Slaughter’s bill and new rules discussed in regulatory agencies. There is also pressure from trade issues: The European Union and other developed countries have adopted strong limits against antibiotics. Russia recently banned pork imports from two U.S. plants after detecting levels of tetracycline that the USDA said met American standards.”

On the other hand, the article stated that, “Opponents, many from farm states, say Slaughter’s law is misguided.

“‘Chaos will ensue,’ said Kansas Republican Congressman Jerry Moran. ‘The cultivation of crops and the production of food animals is an immensely complex endeavor involving a vast range of processes. We raise a multitude of crops and livestock in numerous regions, using various production methods. Imagine if the government is allowed to dictate how all of that is done.’

“He’s backed by an array of powerful interests, including the American Farm Bureau, the National Pork Producers Council, Eli Lilly & Co., Bayer AG, Pfizer Inc., Schering-Plough Corp., Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto Company, who have repeatedly defeated similar legislation.”

With respect to legislative and administrative history on this issue, the AP article explained that, “The FDA says without new laws its options are limited. The agency approved antibiotic use in animals in 1951, before concerns about drug resistance were recognized. The only way to withdraw that approval is through a drug-by-drug process that can take years of study, review and comment.

“In 1977 the agency proposed a ban on penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed, but it was defeated after criticism from interest groups.

“There has been one ban: In 2000, for the first time, the FDA ordered the poultry medication Baytril off the market. Five years later, after a series of failed appeals, poultry farmers stopped using the drug.

“In 2008 the FDA issued its second limit on an antibiotic used in cows, pigs and chickens, citing ‘the importance of cephalosporin drugs for treating disease in humans.’ But the Bush Administration — in an FDA note in the federal register — reversed that decision five days before it was going to take effect after receiving several hundred letters from drug companies and farm animal trade groups.”

While the debate regarding antibiotics moves forward, Bloomberg writer Whitney McFerron reported yesterday that, “U.S. hog producers may have cut their breeding herds in the three months through November by 3 percent from a year earlier, as more than two years of industry losses threatened to continue into 2010.

“About 5.88 million hogs were being held back for breeding as of Dec. 1, down from 6.061 million a year earlier, according to the average estimate of 11 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will release its quarterly estimate of hog inventories at 3 p.m. on Dec. 30 in Washington.

U.S. hog farmers have lost about $6 billion since October 2007, as feed prices soared to a record last year and the recession eroded pork demand in 2009, said Ron Plain, a livestock economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Losses may continue until May 2010, and hog producers need to cut an additional 4 percent of their breeding herds to support prices, he said.”

And Tom Steever reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “The struggling livestock industry tops the list of issues facing Nebraska agriculture in 2009. That’s according to the Nebraska Farm Bureau. The organization’s president, Keith Olsen isn’t surprised.

He says Nebraska’s pork producers have operated in the red for 24 out of the last 28 months. He also cites the price squeeze faced by the state’s dairy producers and bovine tuberculosis discovered in a Nebraska beef herd.”

More specifically with respect to the dairy sector, AP writer Michael Hill reported yesterday that, “Huck Heintz has spent a busy year providing free financial consulting to dairy farmers in upstate New York.

“With milk selling for less than it cost to produce this year, a lot more dairy farmers turned to NY FarmNet, the Ithaca-based not-for-profit agency that employs Heintz. Others called agricultural help lines with their personal and professional woes.”

The article stated that, “NY FarmNet saw a 50 percent increase in help requests over the past year. A group helping Midwest farmers said it expects to end the year with an increase of up to 17 percent.

The demand reflects the dire financial straits many dairy farmers are in this year. Many say their lines of credit are tapped or they can no longer afford monthly payments for equipment bought when milk prices were higher. Their debt problems have been made worse by the falling value of cattle as farmers sold to slaughter herds they couldn’t afford to feed.”

Meanwhile, in a focus on environmental issues and livestock, Henry Fountain reported in today’s New York Times that, “Day and night, a huge contraption prowls the grounds at Frank Volleman’s dairy in Central Texas. It has a 3,000-gallon tank, a heavy-duty vacuum pump and hoses and, underneath, adjustable blades that scrape the surface as it passes along.

“In function it is something like a Zamboni, but one that has crossed over to the dark side. This is no hockey rink, and it’s not loose ice being scraped up. It’s cow manure.

“Lots of cow manure. A typical lactating Holstein produces about 150 pounds of waste — by weight, about two-thirds wet feces, one-third urine — each day. Mr. Volleman has 3,000 lactating Holsteins and another 1,000 that are temporarily ‘dry.’ Do the math: his Wildcat Dairy produces about 200 million pounds of manure every year.”

The Times article explained that, “Proper handling of this material is one of the most important tasks faced by a dairy operator, or by a cattle feedlot owner, hog producer or other farmer with large numbers of livestock. Manure has to be handled in an environmentally acceptable way and at an acceptable cost. In most cases, that means using it, fresh or composted, as fertilizer. ‘It’s a great resource, if used properly,’ said Saqib Mukhtar, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A & M University and an expert on what is politely called manure management.

“But as the increasing incidence of environmental and health problems linked to agriculture makes clear, when manure is mismanaged the nutrients in it can foul streams, lakes and aquifers; the pathogens in it can contaminate food products; and the gases it produces, including ammonia, methane and bad-smelling volatile compounds, can upset neighbors and pollute the atmosphere.

Even with best practices, manure can cause environmental headaches. So researchers are working on ways to improve its handling, to modify the nutrients in it and to develop alternative uses.”

Mr. Fountain noted that, “Diet modification can help, to some extent. Phosphorous is added to dairy feed as a supplement, and research has shown that it tends to be added in excess, said William P. Weiss, a professor in the animal sciences department at Ohio State University. ‘You can get good milk and good health at much lower levels,’ Dr. Weiss said. ‘And every gram less they feed is a gram less excreted.’

“Nitrogen, on the other hand, comes from protein, and a lactating cow needs to consume a lot of protein. ‘Decrease it a bit, and then milk production falls off,’ Dr. Weiss said.

“With nitrogen, the problem is usually not that there is too much, but that much of it is eventually lost from the manure in the form of gaseous ammonia. The bacteria in feces contain an enzyme, urease, that breaks down urea in urine into carbon dioxide and ammonia. As with phosphorous, diet can affect the amount of nitrogen retained in the manure. As corn-based ethanol production has increased in the United States, many dairies and feedlots now give their animals a large amount of so-called distillers’ grains, the waste corn after fermentation, which are plentiful and cheap. A recent study of feedlots in the Texas Panhandle, by scientists with the United States Department of Agriculture, showed that feeding a diet high in distillers’ grains produced significantly higher ammonia emissions from the manure.”

Climate Change Issues

Reuters writer Timothy Gardner reported last week that representatives of some sectors of the livestock industry have also taken legal action in policy issues associated with climate change.

In his article, Mr. Gardner indicated that, “A beef industry group has challenged a ruling by U.S. environmental regulators that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health, saying the move would hurt agriculture.”

The Reuters article noted that, “The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association filed a petition in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals [last] week, saying EPA climate regulations would hurt large farms.

“‘This unilateral move by the EPA jeopardizes our ability to remain competitive in the global marketplace,’ said Tamara Theis, chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

She said potential EPA rules could force many farms to get permits to emit greenhouse gases or slow operations. If farms had to buy the permits in a market or curtail beef output it could help force many of them to close.”

In other climate related developments, Marianne Lavelle and M.B. Pell noted yesterday at Politico.com that, “The next round of the battle over climate change policy on Capitol Hill will involve more than the usual suspects — way more.

“Watch soup makers face off against steel companies. Witness the folks who pump gas from the ground fight back against those who dig up rock. And watch the venture capitalists who have money riding on new technology try to gain advantage in a game that so far has been deftly controlled by the old machine.

“An analysis of the latest federal records by the Center for Public Integrity shows that the overall number of businesses and groups lobbying on climate legislation has essentially held steady at about 1,160, thanks in part to a variety of interests that have left the fray. But a close look at the 140 or so interests that jumped into the debate for the first time in the third quarter shows a marked trend: Companies and organizations that feel they’ve been overlooked are fighting for a place at the table.”

Yesterday’s article stated that, “Take the concerns raised by the world’s largest maker of soup, Camden, N.J.-based Campbell Soup Co., one of a slew of grocery producers (including Kellogg, Del Monte Foods and the Alliance of Food Associations) that registered to lobby on climate change for the first time in the July-September quarter.

“‘It wasn’t until we analyzed what was going on in the House that we thought, ‘Oh, gosh, we are being affected by this,’’ Kelly Johnston, Campbell Soup’s vice president for public affairs, said in an interview.”

“Johnston argues that Campbell should either be exempt from that process or be provided some freebies, too. ‘I think it’s clear from our view that we’re not being treated as fairly as carbon-intensive industries,’ Johnston said. ‘There needs to be some recognition of the role the food industry plays in our economy.’”

Biofuels

Naureen S. Malik reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Cellulosic-ethanol production, a cornerstone of the U.S. government’s plan to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, is earmarked to overtake corn ethanol over the next decade. But the industry’s expected takeoff could be delayed by a year.

“Several potholes make the path difficult, including regulatory delays, but the biggest hurdle is that dozens of commercial-scale and pilot facility projects haven’t been able to secure enough financing to begin construction. The recession and tight credit markets have made it difficult to draw investors while the Department of Energy, which has committed $1.3 billion for bio-refinery projects, has been slow to dispense money. It is a chicken-and-egg problem: Both are waiting for each other to move first.

“‘The red tape and difficulty of putting it together is standing in the way of all the projects,’ said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Washington-based law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.”

Yesterday’s Journal article added that, “Currently, the only production of cellulosic ethanol is coming from a handful of small-scale pilot plants in Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, New York, and South Dakota, which represent less than 5% of the 100-million-gallon mandate proposed by Congress for 2010. Given this shortfall, ethanol companies and petroleum refiners—normally at odds with one another—say that the mandate should be suspended. That mandate is expected to rise to 16 billion gallons in 2022.”

Keith Good

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